By Father Bill Pomerleau
Recently I paid a brief visit to the small town of Wales, on the eastern edge of our Diocese of Springfield. My destination was the former St. Monica Mission, a building I had last seen almost two years ago.
My last visit was in my capacity as coordinator of patrimony for the diocese, a position which requires me to inspect and catalogue the surplus churches, convents, schools and rectories that have resulted from the pastoral planning process. Along with other diocesan officials, I make recommendations to Bishop McDonnell about the disposition of sacred objects in each building.
St. Monica’s, which in recent years hosted a single weekend Mass on weekends only, closed as a Catholic place of worship on Sept. 7, 2008, some months after its mother parish, St. Christopher’s in Brimfield, was yoked with St. Patrick’s in Monson.
At the time of St. Monica’s closing, its remaining parishioners had agreed that it did not make sense to place upon Father Jeddie Brooks and his parishioners the financial and pastoral burdens of ministering in three sites. It made sense to stop using the simple chapel.
Built in 1901, St. Monica’s was a charming, but outmoded building for a church. It lacks water and sewer lines, and has no restroom. Parking is limited. A drop-down ceiling had been added to save on heating. And reportedly, an underground stream ran under the building, making any repair or expansion project difficult. The Town of Wales looked at acquiring the site for a senior center, but balked at the reputed problems at the site.
I recall saying to myself, “Father Bill, you’ll probably be back here reporting for the Catholic Observer as parishioners cry when the diocese brings in the wrecking crane.”
But I was wrong.
Sheila Cabot, an experienced businesswoman who ran a retail store in Palmer called Andrea’s Isle when she was just 23, wanted to open a new store that would sell fabric and trim. After considering other sites, she gave a careful look to St. Monica’s.
Cabot told me that the location of what’s now known as Meeting House Fabrics and Trim is not a disadvantage. While the center of tiny Wales might not support another variety store, it can house successfully a specialized store for quilters, who come from far away to supply their craft.
Before purchasing the building from the diocese for an undisclosed price last fall, she determined that she could afford to transform it into a place of business.
She discovered that a sump pump could take care of most of the water problems. An additional heater in the transcept part of the chapel that was once the Chapel of the Madonna, a short lived mission for Italian Catholics in Monson that was moved to Wales in 1931 could make the chapel habitable in the winter months.
Before handing the church over to Cabot and Valle, the diocese removed clearly sacred objects such as the altar, tabernacle, and Stations of the Cross. Two elaborate stained glass windows with religious symbolism were removed, while several others in the nave of the church remained with small medallion sections with symbolism painted over.
But 37 nine-foot oak pews lined up in the church were included in the sale.
Luckily, Cabot’s husband is a carpenter; and more luckily, her business partner Steve Valle and his father, Lewis Valle, are cabinetmakers.
While the Cabots tore out the dropped ceiling, did basic carpentry work, and added 40 gallons of paint to the church, the Lewises undertook the most interesting part of the renovation project.
The St. Monica pews had a limited market for re-use in local churches. They were bulky and difficult to transport, and not the right size or quantity to fit other small churches in the diocese.
But in the cabinet makers had the expertise to reconfigure them. Steve Valle created 14, four-and-a-half foot pews to store fabrics on, and repurposed the remaining wood in baseboards, trim and a counter area.
The combination of oak furniture, light fixtures and stained glass from the original chapel give a visitor a clear sense of the building’s history without making one feel that a sacred space is being violated.
An area of the transcept set aside for quilting groups to meet gives the air of a colonial meeting house – the term which Protestant New Englanders used for building which served both as places of worship and secular gathering spaces.
Several parishioners of St. Christopher’s and St. Patrick’s, particularly those who like to sew, were among the visitors at Cabot’s May 1. They were very pleased with the new use of their beloved building.